You know where this is headed, right? We all know. Donald Trump and the Republicans are going to turn the election into a red vs. blue culture war battle—not over abortion, not over climate change, not over guns, but this time, over death itself.
Because death is every authoritarian’s last play. An authoritarian leader makes demands of his people. They must cheer more lustily than non-authoritarian people cheer. They must salute in a particular way. They must exonerate him of all error, whether stupidly invading Russia or massively screwing up a pandemic response or shooting someone on Fifth Avenue. And finally, they must prove they are willing to at least flirt with death, if the leader’s hold on power requires it. It’s the final demand on loyalty, and every authoritarian gets there eventually, in one way or another, even those forced to operate within democratic contexts.
Thus, the question of the 2020 election, as Trump and his party attempt to frame it: Are you manly enough to sneer at death, like real men do in the movies (which are fake, of course, but never mind that), or are you one of those pusillanimous patsies who quivers under the bed sheets like some avocado toast-eating intellectual, whining that we have to listen to the experts?
Everything with these people gets stripped down to that. It’s instinct vs. intellect. Passion vs. reason. Caveman-self vs. educated self. That’s the fight Trump and Fox News and the Republicans crave.
And I’m not sure I want to think about how this country is going to answer.
It will start, as these things often do with Trump, as they often do with all demagogues, slowly and just on the edge of ambiguously. Trump will say something at a press briefing—something noncommittal, offhand, open to interpretation. About how maybe death in some cases is OK, who knows. It will be vague enough that his apologists can spin it (“what the President meant to say was that there are times in life when death comes as a blessing, which many of us know from experience...”).
Then Fox News will kick into gear, lining up experts affirming that the president has it exactly right. Republicans will agree or stay silent. And before you can say “Freedom Is Slavery,” boom. Forty-whatever percent of America will agree.
In the meantime, Trump announced his “guidelines” Thursday for reopening. That’s an insanely laughable word in this context, guidelines, because it suggests a set of rules or recommendations based on something—research, facts, data; intellect, reason, non-caveman selfhood. What he did was just punt it to the states, which is the right thing, improbably enough, but he obviously did it because he doesn't want the blame in case the reopening is a disaster.
He “consulted with business leaders” Wednesday. Again, we all know what that phrase means. It means he talked, and they listened. And of the ones who did talk, the only ones he heard were the ones who said, “Mr. President, I want to thank you for your exquisite, perfect leadership through this crisis, which dwarfs that of any other foreign leader in precisely the way your inaugural crowd size dwarfed that of what’s his name, who, through some grotesque accident of historical indignity, happened to precede you in the Oval Office.”
In fact, it was apparently even worse than that. The Washington Post reported that it got off to a “rocky start” with some of them complaining that “the effort was haphazard and warning that more testing needs to be in place before restrictions are lifted.” Haphazard is the polite word for an unhinged disaster.
So back we’re going to go, at least some of us, to work and to school and, for the real Americans, like those who protested in Michigan Wednesday, restaurants and bars and movies. (Side prediction: There are going to be a lot of John Wayne film festivals in red state cinemas, or Rambo marathons.)
And people are going to get sick, and they’re going to die. And the Trump GOP view is: Well, that’s life. Death, that is.
Most of them will have been old. They’re worth the price. Sure, they fought in wars, tended victory gardens, built the greatest middle class ever. That was then. Today, they’re a burden.
Louisiana GOP Senator John Kennedy came oh-so-close to saying it openly Wednesday night to Tucker Carlson (who thanked him for his “wise words”): “We’ve got to reopen, and when we do, the coronavirus is gonna spread faster.” He threw in that “we have to be ready,” but he knows very well that we’re not ready.
But Angela Merkel is reopening things! So why not us? Here’s why. Because Merkel handled this well from the start. She’s been terrific. Germany ranks among the world’s leaders in tests per 1,000,000 population at 20,629, more than double the United States. And she’s reopening very slowly; restaurants, arenas, and theaters are still closed through August.
Wednesday, I spoke with Maryland Rep. Jamie Raskin—my own congressman, from here in suburban Washington, D.C. With four Democratic colleagues, he’s just introduced the Reopen America Act, which lays out a fact-based, non-caveman course toward reopening. “Basically, it’s when states meet certain criteria,” he told me. “The main one being when we’re confident that hospitals can meet expected demand.” The key indicator, he says, is an infection rate of 1 or below, meaning that an infected person can pass COVID-19 on to no more than one other person.
How do we get to know that? Testing. And how’s testing in the state of Maryland, I asked—a state, remember, with a responsible Republican governor, Larry Hogan, who’s been very good on this, and with a far-better-than-average medical infrastructure? “Not good,” Raskin said. “We test people when we know they’ve got it. Meanwhile, 25 percent of people are walking around, and they’ve got it, they’re just asymptomatic.” Raskin called a May 1 reopening “criminal.”
In Saneworld, that doesn’t even need to be said. In Saneworld, the course of action is obvious: ramp up testing and contact-tracing, get the infection rate under one, prudently open certain small businesses and maybe restaurants with the proper spacing and hope that life can be back to something like normal by Labor Day, at which point, if we’ve followed the science properly, we won’t have to go through this again in the fall.
But in Trumpworld—well, all this needs to be said, but there’s no point in saying it. In Trumpworld, reopening is just a matter of will. And strength. And devotion to the leader. To prove that devotion, and to prove that your hatred of the libs and the doctors and the experts and suspects elements among even the business community is pure, you must be willing to do certain things.
You must be willing to risk your own health. You must be willing to lay in bed for 10 days with a 102-degree fever as you can barely breathe. To gaze upon your wheezing, intubated 82-year-old mother and steel yourself to say that if her death helps beat back the President’s foes, helps keep the nation on God’s path, perhaps it is worth it.
That, between now and Election Day, is what Trump is going to divide this country into—the timid people who seek safety and science and reassurance, and the brave souls who are willing to embrace the liberation of death.
How many millions of Americans’ brains are already being squeezed by that psychological vise grip, the same one used by authoritarian demagogues from time immemorial? I think not enough for it to succeed. But do not underestimate its power. Fill people’s brains with fear, and a lot of them will want a Dear Leader to tell them what to do. We’ve learned that tragic lesson from watching so many other countries.
We never thought we’d be watching it here. But we are.